The Pee That Set the World on Fire: Phosphorus and the “Last Alchemist”
By Heath Shive
A lot of science has its origins with weird people doing weird things!
The mother mold of all modern penicillin was discovered on a rotten melon by a woman named Mary (“Moldy Mary,” as she was called by her jerk co-workers).
The so-called “last of the alchemists” Hennig Brand discovered the element phosphorus in his urine – a whole lot of urine – in 1669 in Hamburg.
And if “truth is stranger than fiction,” then no wonder science can be pretty weird.
To the science of the pee that set the world on fire!
The Elixir of Life…and Other Stuff
Not much is known of Hennig Brand’s early life, except that he married very well – with a substantial dowry – and then pursued his chemistry research full-time.
Water fascinated alchemists; it is after all the universal solvent. And humans created water in the form of urine. Urine happens to have a golden color, and gold just so happened to fascinate alchemists too.
Brand boiled and condensed thousands of liters of urine. God only knows what his house must have smelled like. Brand noticed a vapor from boiling urine that had a ghostly glow, and that the vapor could be condensed into a waxy white substance that also glowed.
“Phosphorus” means “bringer of light.
Brand showed off his new prize to the courts and scholars of Europe, but he kept the secret of its making to himself. After Brand’s death, it was a generation later before other chemists repeated his success.
The famous scientist Robert Hooke recreated Brand’s work and wrote a recipe – which can be found in Hugh Aldersey-Williams’ book Periodic Tales.
The recipe goes something like this: Take a quantity of Urine (not less for one Experiment than 50 or 60 Pails full); let it lie steeping…till it putrify (sic)…in 14 or 15 days. Then…set some to boil…till at last the whole Quantity be reduced to Paste…add thereto some fair Water…boil them together for ¼ of an Hour…strain…boil’d till it come to a Salt…
Incidentally, in Periodic Tales, the author does try to create phosphorus from his own pee.
Don’t judge. After all, some people play golf.
A century later, two Swedes named Carl Scheel and Johan Gahn showed that bones were actually a much better source for phosphorus. About 20 percent of the human skeleton is calcium phosphate. Industrial phosphorus today comes from phosphate rocks, like apatite.
Phosphorus doesn’t just glow with an “inner fire,” it violently combusts on contact with oxygen – which is why phosphorus is usually stored under water.
In July 1943, during World War Two, Brand’s hometown of Hamburg was bombed with 1,900 tonnes of white phosphorus incendiary bombs. On the third night of bombing, a firestorm was created that “melted between forty thousand and fifty thousand people.”
Since then, phosphorus has been a military staple used to create illumination at night or smokescreens. But dropping phosphorus bombs (on civilian targets) has never happened since.
Phosphorus may burn with an inner fire, but so do human beings. Sometimes we burn with eccentric curiosity, like Brand. Sometimes we burn with a violence, like war.
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Aldersey-Williams, Hugh. Periodic Tales: A Cultural History of the Elements from Arsenic to Zinc. Viking, 2011.
Stwertka, Albert. A Guide to the Elements. 3rd ed. Oxford, 2012.
Hello! My name is Heath Shive, content manager at ScholarFox. I'll be the author of most of the blog posts. I'm a former geologist and currently a freelance writer. The world is complex and seemingly crazy. Good! Because when you love to learn, you'll never be bored.